Twenty Dollars an Hour to Visit Your Child
"I Call This Place Auschwitz for Children"Massachusetts News
August 2, 1999
Jim O'Brien, 49, of East 9th Street in South Boston is pacing a little on the porch of a huge yellow house in Cambridge. It's a Saturday morning, almost 11, a warm day in June. He smokes a cigarette, waiting for his time to start. His daughter Michele is eight going on nine, and this is the only way he gets to see her: at a visitation center. He pays $20, and he gets to see her for 50 minutes.
The yellow house in Cambridge is on Sacramento Street, off Massachusetts Avenue midway between Harvard and Porter Square. It's in a residential neighborhood. During the week, it houses a counseling program. Lesley College is nearby.
On Saturdays it's taken over by The Meeting Place. It's one of at least 18 such "visitation centers" in the state. More are being formed every month--visitation is a rapidly growing business. Many are supported by state funds from DSS, which paid nearly $1 million for these services last year.
The Meeting Place, like all visitation centers, is basically a cluster of employees who supervise the visits of children with parents they cannot live with. Most of the time, the visiting parent is a father, and often a man who has been accused -- though not tried or convicted -- of some form of abuse.
If your luck brings you a visitation-center relationship with your child, this is what happens. You have an appointment, every week or two, to see your child or children. You arrive first -- you pay your money to the desk clerk -- and you then go to the room where you wait. Your ex-wife, or ex-girlfriend brings the child to the center . Your child is escorted by a "center employee" in to see you. There you visit under observation. Here are two profiles of men who use The Meeting Place. The reporter hung around outside the center one Saturday looking for people to talk to: these two men spoke.
Jim O'Brien and his daughter
Jim O'Brien, who waits on the porch of the yellow house, is a maintenance worker and a father. He has sandy hair, a reddish complexion, stands about five foot six, leans a little to one side, as if he has trouble with his back. His jacket is a tan, wrinkled and worn NFL warmup jacket. His blue work shirt has a white ID patch on it: Post Office Square. His shoes are loosely laced black combat-style boots.
"I call this place Auschwitz for children," he says, as an opener. He's not that eager to talk, but when he starts he keeps going. How did he wind up having to visit his daughter on Saturdays while a clipboard-carrying observer watches every second? He never married the mother of his daughter. As he tells it, she refused his ring, threw him out, didn't want anything to do with men, just wanted to be pregnant. When pregnant, she dumped him. Asked if he was ever charged with misusing his child, he says, "I had two false charges against me -- I was found innocent."
He lost touch with his daughter for some time, but later decided she needed to see him, and he asked the Visitation Center to arrange the visits -- for his own protection. He thought if he spent any time alone with his daughter, he could be charged all over again. He says he doesn't know where his daughter lives, and he doesn't want to know. "As long as I don't know where she lives, they can't blame me for anything."
He used this place six years before, but now, he says The Meeting Place has become harsher.
"People yell at you in front of the children. They try to degrade the father in the child's eyes and put up the mother. No matter what you do, you're doing it wrong. I wish I'd never come here. They try to discriminate against fathers. They belittle you."
"I have no rights to know about my daughter's First Communion, her school, her grades -- nothing."
When he asked his daughter if she'd made her First Communion in the six years since he had seen her, the social worker jumped in and said, "You're not allowed to ask that!"
All the observers except one are women. "Some are nicer than others, but they all discriminate against men." His other complaints? You can't get the same "observer" every week; they are assigned at random. Sometimes two people sit in the room with him and his daughter, because one is being trained. Women have a free ride in this center he says. "If anything don't comply with what the mother wants, you can't do anything. Nothing's ever done to the women."
When asked what was good about the last visit, he says, "My daughter gave me a big smile." He smiles himself, remembering it.
Yaz and his son
A thin man of middle-eastern complexion leaves the yellow building by a side door, walking next to a small boy of dark round face, black hair, and dark, laughing eyes. The man bends over the child, talking with him eagerly. The boy seems to be showing off as he peddles his red plastic tricycle, his eyes leaping up to see if his dad is watching.
Ten feet behind them walks a woman with red curly hair, wearing a white blouse and blue jeans: she's carrying a clipboard and a plastic bag with a water bottle in it: she's the observer. She limps a bit. The threesome disappears down the sidewalk.
Later, when the visit is over, the man comes out alone. He sits in the shade on a playground bench and talks.
His name is "Yaz." He's thirty-five, his son three. He won't give his last name or his son's name.
He wears blue shorts, and a not-in-fashion business shirt, white with red lines, open at the collar. He wears black rubber sandals. His deep tan says Mediterranean. His close-cropped crinkly hair is receding. His narrow face is full of feeling. He's trying to make a point, get something across. He repeatedly expresses gratitude that the Visitation Center "gave me an hour to see my son" but he hates supervised visitation anyway.
"I am not happy with supervised visitation in general," says Yaz. "I didn't commit any crime. I did nothing that can be proved. It is unfair to give me supervised visitation for the child that I love.
"I'm a full time graduate student in computer science at BU. I am not a culprit." He's in a masters-doctorate program in network communications.
How did this happen to him and his son?
"I'm a victim of my background," he says. He came from Iran via Germany ten years ago; he became a US citizen in 1994. But his dark skin and his background were a liability in court. His wife, a Puerto-Rican American, filed for divorce. "She discovered she could limit me by saying I could steal the child back to Iran."
He says his wife knows he has no intention of taking his son to Iran. Iran has a military draft. "I know that doing anything like that can jeopardize my child's future. I have no interest in anything that will destroy my relationship with my child forever."
"I love him. He is my soul. He is the heart of my life. He is the jewel I live life for. "
None of this feeling for his son apparently registered on Judge Dufley at Cambridge Family Court. "She didn't want even to listen to me. It seems she made her decision before she came in the courtroom. Because of my background, she just ... put me in the guilty side."
Now he is a stripped man. He can't see his son without an observer watching. He can't visit or talk with any of his friends, because the restraining order --like many these days -- prevents him from having even "indirect" contact with his wife, and that means he can't talk to anyone she knows. So he is isolated. Yet struggling to be the father he has always been.
He is forbidden even to keep track of whether his son is breathing or not. "I called his doctor when he was very sick." Because of the restraining order, the doctor refused to tell him anything about how serious his sickness was, unless a judge ordered it. So Yaz -- worried sick about his ill son -- had to make another trip to court, and to get a motion from the judge to order the doctor to tell him how his beloved son was. With the court order in hand, he found out.
"That is totally unfair." He is clearly a close-bonded Dad, a mothering Dad, an empathic father whom the child is bonded to. He carries food with him to the visits: rice and chicken, the way his boy likes, the way Daddy cooks it.
He tries to get across how closely he took care of his son. "From the moment he was born, I took care of him, I gave him the bottle, I wiped his butt."
"And now they take away all that joy," he says, "Not my joy, his joy."
The Center insists that he get permission in advance from his ex-wife for anything out of the ordinary. His son's third birthday party took place at the center. He brought a friend with him so it would be something like a normal party for the little boy. But the friend was turned away -- no advance clearance for him.
Yaz lives in Somerville. He can't afford a car. This time, he came in a car that he borrowed from a friend -- but he used to come here every Saturday by taking three buses.
He has to pay to see his son, as everyone does at The Meeting Place -- and it's expensive for him. "I don't make that much money," he says. On a grad student salary he has to buy food, clothes, books, insurance, research materials, and he pays rent and pays The Meeting Place. For Yaz, as for everyone, no payment means no visit. He is going into debt, putting $200 to $250 on a credit card each month. "This is my only option."
We look up from our bench. A normal Cambridge father, a good-looking white guy with grey in his beard, wire-rimmed glasses and good quality clothes, appears. He looks like a relaxed professor. His son and daughter, who seem to be between six and eight, meander along beside him. They are going to the park.
What will Yaz say when he sees Judge Dufley again?
"Don't put me in a box, so I cannot have any influence on his life! It is destroying me! That is the child I call the Light of My Eyes, and her court order takes all the joy out of ...his life! He can still remember how he played horsey with me!"
Does the boy come with his mother in a car? asks the reporter, but Yaz has not heard the question and doesn't answer.
"Every time I meet with him, he says, 'Daddy, I miss you every day.'" He is looking away from the reporter, and is silently crying.
It's a few tears; he wipes them with his index finger.
"It breaks my heart so much. It is mentally destroying me. But I love my child so much. The court system is totally unfair, a very vicious system."
A seven-page article which dispels the many myths about domestic violence is on the website of the Family Research Council at www.frc.org:80/insight/is94g6cr.html, or call them at 1-800-225-4008. Their address is 801 G Street NW, Washington, DC 20001.